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Using Panning to Add Motion To Your Photos

If you’re like me, you’re constantly trying to think of different ways to infuse creativity within your photos. This is especially true if I’m returning to a place that I’ve photography at many times before. Your goal is to be able to engage your viewers and a great way to do so is to try and set yourself, and your photos, apart. An easy and fun photo tip I want to share is to introduce panning into your repertoire of photo tricks. I first started giving panning a shot during my 14,000,001st visit to Times Square in New York City. I set a goal for myself to focus only on the taxis that were driving by. Even though it was the evening, all of the lights, signs, and displays provided more than enough illumination to have some fun and the fact is that I discovered panning mostly by accident! A taxi had driven by and I wanted to get its photo. Instinctively, I swiveled my body to try and catch it as it zipped by. When I chimped the result, I was totally hooked! So, I spent the next hour photographing every taxi cab that drove by. As you could probably imagine, I had about 90% throw-aways but there was that 10% that was filled with some real gems! So, I’d like to share some tips on how to get the best possible results while panning.

I find that panning photos are most pleasing when there is a portion of your moving subject that is either tack sharp or sharp enough to really discern what it is. One of the most important factors in getting a sharp result with panning is to swivel your body, technically your camera body, so that it is in sync with your moving subject. The more equally your rate of motion matches your moving subject’s, the better the result will be. This is probably the greatest point of failure for a photographer. Either you panned your camera to slowly or to quickly – the key is to constantly practice.

Another factor related to timing is ensuring that you start exposing at the right time. I find that my favorite results are when my camera is as perpendicular to my subject as possible – that is to say, it isn’t at an angle with respect to my moving subject. An easy way to ensure that you get this perpendicular frame is to set your camera to its burst mode so that it rifles off as many frames as its buffer allows for. As long as you’re panning your camera and it is able to exposure photos, you should be able to land that perpendicular shot.

Now, in terms of panning your camera, I see two primary ways that you can go about getting your result. Firstly, you can set your camera on a tripod with a head that swivels and just pan it from side to side as your subject moves through your frame. This is certainly a more reliable way to get a good result because you have that added stability and fluid motion. However, what you gain in stability, you lose in mobility. Often times, when you’re intent on getting a panning shot, your subject may come out of nowhere and you likely won’t have the time to set up your tripod to get it. This is where good ol’ handholding comes into play. Like with long-exposure handholding, it’s a good idea to try and breathe in and hold your breath while you pan. Doing this certainly has a positive impact on your ability to hold your camera steady due to you preventing your lungs from expanding and contracting. I also recommend pressing your camera to your face instead of using a Live View, unless your camera does not have an optical or electronic viewfinder. Doing so will also add stability.

The final tip to consider is your shutter speed. Like with just about any other type of photography, your shutter speed is dictated by the amount of available light you have. You’ll likely have one shutter speed set to freeze your subject as they are moving so it stands to reason that you’ll want to drag your shutter out by some degree to capture more of their motion. There is no hard-and-fast rule in terms of which shutter speed is most ideal but I will tell you that my panning photos usually hover between 1/25 and 1/4 second in daylight and between 1/3 and 1/2 second at night. Of course, these values can change depending on the other settings you have set on your camera (think aperture and ISO). Speaking of ISO, I usually keep my camera set at ISO100 for all of my panning photos but that shouldn’t be taken as gospel.

So there you have it! Introducing panning into your photos really is a fun and easy way to create a different and truly engaging photo!

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